What is a White Paper?

When you think of a white paper, do you see pages upon pages of text drier than last night’s wine bottle? 

Or is there a little voice inside you that thinks, Maybe white papers have potential? 

If so, that little voice is onto something.

White papers in marketing can be extraordinary lead generation tools when planned, written and designed effectively. 

We’ll explain why in this article, which covers:

1. What is a white paper?

2. Is it white paper or whitepaper?

3. What’s the difference between a white paper and an ebook?

4. What does a white paper look like?

5. What should a white paper cover?

6. How do white papers serve businesses?

7. Should readers pay for a white paper? 

First, let’s unpack the white paper definition. 

What is a white paper?

Investopedia’s white paper definition goes like this: 

“An informational document usually issued by a company or not-for-profit organization to promote or highlight the features of a solution, product or service that it offers or plans to offer.”

This is wrong.

White papers aren’t centered on company promotion. Or at least they shouldn’t be.

Their primary goal is to use facts and evidence to inform the reader on a particular topic. So readers come away with the knowledge needed to solve a tough problem or answer a tricky question.

Yes, the solution might be your product or service. But the reader needs to come to that conclusion on their own. 

That’s the beauty of white papers. They use noninvasive tactics to help you build credibility and trust with your readers while bringing them further into the buying cycle. 

But we’ll talk more about that in a moment. 

To clarify, white papers are:

  • Informative 
  • Data-centric
  • Text-heavy
  • Formal
  • Research-based

But never boring. Not when you’re writing for an audience who cares passionately about the problem you’re solving.  

Is it white paper or whitepaper? 

Both are acceptable. White paper is more widely used. But if that little space offends you (no judging, we understand!) then feel free to opt for the one-word version in your marketing. 

What’s the difference between a white paper and an ebook? 

Ebooks are more informal than white papers. They can also be used as bottom-of-the-funnel marketing content to sell your products or services.

Ebooks are also usually shorter than white papers. Sometimes they have pages dedicated to images or illustrations since there’s more flexibility to be visually creative. And they don’t shy away from strong call-to-actions linked to generating sales.

Whereas white papers are the academic papers of content marketing. Take that for a white paper definition! 

They can take months to write and polish due to the depth of research required. While there’s no strict page requirement, readers will expect your white paper to be longer and more detailed than an ebook. 

There are some similarities between the two. PDF is usually the go-to format for white papers and ebooks. Both are also often used as gated content to gather customer information for further nurturing. 

What does a white paper look like?

White papers in marketing are like people, unique and beautiful in all their variations! 

But there are general characteristics that make them stand out from other marketing assets, especially when it comes to white paper design and formatting. 

Defining features include:

  • An introduction
  • A letter from the editor 
  • A table of contents
  • Over 6 pages of text
  • References throughout 
  • Data visuals
  • A strong conclusion 

Learn more about what a white paper should look like in our article: 6 Steps to a Lucrative White Paper.

We also share 7 examples of clever white paper designs to get you informed and inspired. 

What should a white paper cover? 

We talked about the primary goal of a white paper: to educate and inform a specific audience using facts and evidence. But there are a few ways you can approach a topic and present your information.

1. Provide detailed information about a complex problem

Be the source of all knowledge. Especially powerful in burgeoning industries, for nascent technology or new legislation, this type of white paper collates detailed information, real-life experience, hypothesis and industry commentary in once place. You might not be saying anything new, but you are bringing it altogether. That positions you as an authority and a useful source of intel. 

2. A solution to a technical problem

Identify a technical problem your audience faces. Articulate its complexities and history then provide or suggest a solution. Be sure to provide evidence about why your proposed solution is recommended, successful or proven. This is the most common structure for white papers (we discuss this further in 6 Steps to a Lucrative White Paper). 

3. A new piece of information

What is nobody else talking about in your industry? It could be missing data that sheds light on specific trends. Or an idea nobody has thought to cover. It might challenge the norm - a white paper mic drop moment that’s about to shift the paradigm. Talk about it in exquisite detail to turn heads and gain a competitive advantage. 

How do white papers serve businesses?

The one million pound question. If you’re going to do all that work, there’s got to be something big in it for your business, right?

Well here’s a juicy fact for you: 68% of white papers readers contact organisations who create white papers to inform and educate (Frost).   

And here’s another: 79% of B2B buyers listed white papers as the material they were most likely to share with colleagues (Demand Gen). 

Proof that white papers in marketing are powerful relationship-building tools

Offer them at the awareness and consideration stage of the buyer's journey (top of the funnel and middle of the funnel) to teach people about your brand and prove that you are an expert in your industry. This helps you build credibility and trust with your readers - the essential building blocks for sales.

White papers can also be used as a strategic tool to:

  • Move readers further down the customer buying cycle
  • Bring readers back to your website 
  • Keep readers on your pages for longer 
  • Give your sales team a valuable resource 

Another way a white paper can serve your business is by making readers pay for it. But then there are big benefits for offering it as free gated content. We talk about this below. 

Should readers pay for a white paper?

It depends on your audience and business. 

Perhaps your whitepaper offers education your readers can’t get anywhere else for free. Either that’s a sign you should charge for it or that there’s a big opportunity to make a splash with an unrivalled offer.

Truth is, most businesses don’t charge for white papers. Instead, they offer them as ‘free’ gated content. So they get customer details, including email signups, in exchange for the free content. Which will help them secure sales further down the line.

That doesn’t mean you have to be like every other business. But you should consider your readers’ expectations when making this decision. 

Learn how to write a white paper 

To recap, we’ve covered:

1. What is a white paper?

2. Is it white paper or whitepaper?

3. What’s the difference between a white paper and an ebook?

4. What does a white paper look like?

5. What should a white paper cover?

6. How do white papers service businesses?

7. Should readers pay for a white paper? 

But the learning doesn’t end there. If you want nail your next business white paper, read:

Meanwhile, discover 8 Outstanding White Paper Examples for oodles of inspiration. 

And if you have any questions we haven’t covered, get in touch!

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